Updates May 2023

Fully Funding and Expanding Programs for Vulnerable Populations
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As part of implementation of Transit is the Answer, the RTA is seeking to fully fund existing ADA paratransit services and also fund and expand the existing regional free or reduced fare programs to make it available to people experiencing low incomes; to make the system more affordable and advance our understanding about the barriers that fares present to riders.

To gather more input on this project, in May, the RTA held its first Transit is the Answer coalition meeting with more than 100 stakeholders, riders, and advocates. The input from this conversation was then presented to our Board of Directors and continues to advance the issue with legislators in Springfield as part of conversations about transit funding.

Watch a full update from the May 2023 Board meeting

Why it matters

Fully funding and expanding regional reduced fare and ride free programs increases access for those residents who need it most.

Fundamentally, our region’s transit system is underfunded and over-reliant on fares. This has led to an over-emphasis on ridership rather than equity and access, meaning high-ridership routes enjoy continued investment while lower-ridership routes may be left behind—even if those routes serve populations of high need. When transit providers can disentangle fares from operating revenue, they can instead focus on having the greatest impact and deliver service to the people who need it most. Fully funding and expanding regional reduced fare and ride free programs is one strategy toward a system less reliant on fares.

Pursuing full funding before expanding these programs can reduce our regional transit system’s impending budget gap, for which state reimbursement has lagged far behind the cost of providing service.

Learn more about RTA’s current reduced fare and ride free offerings.

Current funding needs: Pace ADA Paratransit Service

Pace provides federally mandated service for people with disabilities who can’t access fixed route transit services across the entire 6-county region, including within the City of Chicago. Failure to provide service jeopardizes significant federal funds to the region. Currently the state provides only $8.4 million of the $238.5 million needed to provide this service. 

Group 70

Projected Annual Trips: 4 million (95% of pre-COVID trip demand)
Riders Enrolled: 56,573 (Pace is the second biggest paratransit operator in the U.S., behind NYC)
Riders pay $3.25 per trip but actual cost is nearly $40

Current funding needs: RTA Discounted and Ride Free Programs for CTA, Metra and Pace Riders

The RTA, in partnership with the Department of Aging Benefits Access Program, certifies eligibility for discounted and ride-free programs so people over the age of 65 and people with disabilities who meet income requirements can ride CTA, Metra, and Pace at little to no cost. Similar to ADA Paratransit, the state provides only a fraction of the funding needed to pay for this program. 

Group 69

Riders Enrolled: 363,957
Future growth and costs: Prior to the pandemic, program costs were approximately $110 million annually and are anticipated to grow to $100 million by FY24 and return to pre- COVID levels within the next few years.

Expansion Options

There are many ways to structure a reduced fare or ride free program for riders with low incomes. A few options include:

Income Based Program

Provide free or reduced fare rides to people experiencing low incomes.

Geography Based Program

Provide free or reduced fare rides to people on select train lines or bus routes in parts of the region where people experiencing low incomes frequently ride.

Free for Select Riders Program

Provide free rides to select groups of residents, like students or youth.

Universal and Modal Programs

Make all transit trips fare-free or make all trips on certain modes (e.g., all bus trips) fare-free.

Factors to Consider

As the RTA implements this project, multiple potential impacts need to be considered and weighed including:

Ease of implementation
Ridership and operations impact

Input from coalition members and other stakeholders

Income based programs would be most equitable
Geography based can address historic disinvestment
Build on success of Fair Transit South Cook
Consider burden of proving eligibility
Read and listen to what coalition members had to say.

Next Steps

The RTA is currently engaging elected officials and other stakeholders to educate them about the need to fully fund and expand these programs while developing detailed scope of what a pilot program will cost and require administratively.

Updates on progress will be shared on the Connections blog, via the Regional Transit Update newsletter, and at future Transit is the Answer Coalition meetings.

Stay Engaged